Column- Ashleigh Sanderson
One of the best riding lessons that I ever had was from a back pack and an escalator. The day before was a ten-lesson teaching day, a dash to taxi, airport, jump on a plane and a long haul, overnight flight across the world to the next teaching venue. I was wearing a heavy, badly fitted back pack that had shoulder straps just too long and as I bumbled along through the landing airport, sleep deprived and slow and stepped on the upward escalator, the backward force of the pack pulling back on my shoulders almost over ran the forward force of the escalator pulling me forwards. Just in time, muscle memory engaged my core, I went forwards to counteract the backward pull and without leaning forwards, came into balance with the escalators force. Lightbulb – hello, this is how a horse feels when his rider is a fraction behind the movement – as the horse is trying to go forwards, as the rider is trying to send him forwards, the rider’s slight drag, which increases their weight with a leverage effect, drags the horse backwards. A very simple physics lesson that all rider’s need to understand and that was clarified to me – already a trainer teaching this – in a simple non-horse lesson.
Over the years, I have been very lucky to have had some incredible training with a range of awesome riding instructors. Many Olympic athletes, judges, brain surgeons, physicists to name a few. There have been many moments of “Oh – that is what you mean,” as well as many incredible four-legged learning partners.
However… Some of the truly incredible learning sessions have been with other trainers. Learning to use my breath to influence a horse in spectacular ways came from a hugely talented scuba diving instructor. His talk through of finding buoyancy, of being able to float up or sink down and using the breath to control where you are, is something that I teach all the time. (Still haven’t managed to master one of the underwater exercises that he showed me… I suspect when I get it, I may have a better key to teach collection). A martial artist teaching me how to go from defence to attack was the only person who clarified distribution of balance and weight over both feet and controlling direction of forces, how to flow seamlessly from one to the other with no outward signs but the control of directional forces. A rock climbing trainer taught me how an obvious looking movement, isn’t what it may seem – you don’t climb a wall by pulling yourself up with your arms, you engage you core to the wall, get your (hind) legs under you, propel yourself upwards and the only thing your hands do is give guidance and balance. A pole dancer taught me about elevation, while a belly dancing guru taught me just how little I know about isolating muscles within the core (note to self, you need to re-visit that particular subject). An indoor sky diving trainer taught me about firming up certain parts of the core to change direction, while a zip lining wild child taught me about committing to movement. An archery trainer taught me a very surprising lesson about mindfulness and finding focus while being relaxed in motion. You cannot tense your fingers and force the arrow away, you have to find soft eyes, breathe where you want the arrow to go and relax your shoulder to send it there from the core. And most recently, a porter jogging up Mt Kilimanjaro taught me that dig deep (sit deep) has nothing to do with sitting down on your horses back but activating a deeper line of muscle to get to a higher point.
Not all of these lessons came from teachers either. My teaching of an elite dancer taught me more about movement, poise and balance than I was able to teach her and all three of us (pupil, horse and trainer) left the arena with the biggest grins on our faces. And of course, my back pack and that escalator taught their lesson too.
These are all subjects that we as riders need to understand and embrace. It isn’t fluffy, tree-hugging new age, feel good nonsense (as some seem to think) but practical physics that the elite riders practice inherently and that we non-elite riders need to fully understand and embrace. (By elite riders, I am thinking of the top 100 in the world, not just farmer Jo down the road, even if he is doing a great job).
The reason this is on my mind today, is the trip that I am currently working a timetable for. Once a year, a friend and I organise a riding and yoga retreat. Now this, I hear you think, must be the fluffy, tree hugging bit. But no, yoga and horses are a perfect match. It isn’t all about green tea, rice cakes and downward facing dogs…
Yoga is (partly) about teaching balance, poise, being fully present, feeling the body in a movement and stretching out tension and tightness in blocked areas. Pretty much matching what I am spending my time teaching in the arena. In today’s modern world, we are constantly putting our bodies under pressure. Stress or emotional pressure. Physical pressure by eating highly processed foods, being exposed to chemicals, electrical signals and bad posture from things such as cell phones, computers and sitting in cars. We are too busy, too rushed and in a world of instant gratification and often lack commitment or patience. All of these things have an impact on your riding too. If you rush into the yard, grab your horse, hurry through preparing him, leap on and then get after him for not being fully present or immediately accessible, he will often (rightly) get upset or uncooperative. Slow down, breathe, smell the roses (or coffee) and enjoy your horse. The vast majority of people ride for pleasure, so slow down and enjoy it… Yoga and horses are a great combination. Looking at the other side of the coin, horses can help your yoga practice too. Horses loosen off the lower back in a way that is hard to do. (Which is why they are often used for Riding for the Disabled or Hippotherapy). Horses make you breathe, they make you get outside, both physically and on the outside of your comfort zone. And often, working through the ride will make a yoga movement clearer.
The last two yoga retreats were in Costa Rica and Kenya (yes, we do choose our locations with great care!). It isn’t all about the work and yoga. Costa Rica involved incredible food, awesome people, jungles, beaches, zip lines, unrivalled scenery, riding a pig, swimming in the river with horses – oh, did I mention the incredible food? My personal break through was working with a yoga massage therapist there and understanding the GL (quadratus lumborum) muscle that I was battling with in both my riding and pain in my back. Each and every rider there had a break through – be it in confidence, becoming more relaxed, a break-through in a riding aspect, or simply turning off their technology and reconnecting with the human within them.
Kenya was similar, but so totally different. The vast African savannah, those views, sunsets and who could forget the wildlife? Galloping through the bush on schooled, happy and willing horses with a herd of giraffe. Meeting elephants head on and simply enjoying heading home under a twilight sky. Again, the food (yes, I become a little food obsessed during these weeks), the people, the guests. Camping under the stars, waking up to ponies in the garden and lions roaring in the bush. Another week of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual break throughs. Yoga by the pool, yoga in a tree platform overlooking the hippo pool. Stretching, finding balance. Fixing the canter, feeling the moment a horse offers his back up in a lateral movement. Again, my personal moment came from lessons on breathing from the yoga teaching and another range of exercises that I am working through to improve the strength and elasticity of my diaphragm and core through my breath. A week of special friendships made and personal triumphs achieved…
In September this year, our Yoga and Horse week takes us to stunning Italy, the Lucca region, home of wine and olive farms, where we will find ourselves in a luxury villa, surrounded again with indulgent yet healthy food, friendly horses and a yoga teacher I am excited to be working with. A specialist in Fascia tissue, in balance and alignment, I think I will be on a learning week as well as a teaching week.
Strange advise from a riding trainer, but my thought for this month – give your horse a day off, get out of the arena and go and do something else. Go for a hike, take a sky diving, scuba diving, pole or belly dancing lesson. Do something that takes you out of your comfort zone, into a place where you have to feel your muscles doing a new range of motion. And maybe (hopefully) you will have a new insight to take back to the patient four-legged dancing partner…